St. Louis church bells keep pace with modern times
Hundreds of church bells of the St. Louis Archdiocese and other local congregations have hung silent since Holy Thursday, but will sound again, as is tradition, for Easter Vigil on Saturday. For generations, the handmade metal signals have called on local communities to mark the significant moments of life.
The first bell to arrive in the St. Louis region hangs in the museum behind the Old Cathedral downtown. It was cast in 1772 of bronze and 200 silver pieces — a gift from the local Spanish Lt. Gov. Benito Vasquez to the first church founded here along the Mississippi River.
The largest bell in Missouri, by diameter at least, weighs nearly three tons and is nested with three others a few blocks northwest at Christ Church Cathedral.
“That big bell — you have to warm it up,” said Brett Ferrari who volunteers to pull one of the bell ropes in the belfry on the first Sunday of each month to mark the beginning of service.
“You have to pull it and pull it and get it half way swinging before you can actually lay into it and make it ring.”
Christ Church’s steel bells were made in Germany and brought to St. Louis as an exhibit for the 1904 World’s Fair, but most of those still sounding in church towers today were made of bronze here in St. Louis by the Stuckstede family, said Carl Zimmerman, probably the region’s foremost campanologist and tower bell historian.
“There wasn’t just one Stuckstede bell foundries there were two Stuckstede foundries,” he said, adding the Stuckstede family — at first two brothers and later their descendants — cast thousands of bells for churches large and small across the country between 1855 and 1961.
“Not only that, there were a couple of dozen other companies that made or at least sold bells right here in St. Louis,” he said.
Zimmerman has documented more than a thousand bells still nested in towers in St. Louis and roughly 20 surrounding counties and said he's located at least 500 more that still need to be identified.
Tallest bell tower
Four fine examples of Stuckstede bells still in use can be found in the tallest bell tower in St. Louis at St. Francis De Sales Oratory on Ohio Avenue near Gravois Avenue. The bells were recently retrofitted with an automated system that can swing or strike them with mechanical hammers. According to the church’s general manager, Canon David Silvey, however, there have been some drawbacks to the modern design.
“The system was taken out by a lightning strike just a couple days ago and so part of the main board — without that — will have to be replaced to get that system running again.
The new bell system is the latest part of restoration efforts that saved St. Francis from closing in the mid 2000s due to declining attendance, but when Catholic churches are abandoned or torn down, as many have been in the area, most the bells wind up at the Archdiocese’s reclamation facility at St. Mark Catholic Church in Affton.
Deacon Joe Streckfuss oversees the reclaimed artifacts there and says the bells are stored until the church can find new homes for them.
He said, for instance, last year, three bells from the former Holy Family Church in Tower Grove South were relocated to a new church built for St. George’s parish in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Currently, the facility houses three massive Stuckstede bells from the former St. Boniface Catholic Church in the Patch neighborhood that the church is hoping will be hung again
“There are priests using chalices that are back to the 17th century. So the same thing goes with the bells like this. It’s passed on from this time to the next time,” Streckfuss said.
Removing or restoring bells can often be too expensive and some churches in the region have found it simpler to install large speakers instead. Campanologist Carl Zimmerman said it’s hard to estimate how many churches have replaced their metal bells with newer technology but said it’s usually easy to hear the difference.
“No matter how accurately the electronics folks try to imitate the sound, you just can’t really imitate the sound of a swinging bell.”
The great effort and care given to keeping the bells sounding, he said, is testament to their enduring value in the communities for whom they toll.
Follow Joseph Leahy on Twitter: @joemikeleahy